George Fernandes, Trade Unions and Skill India

Ashutosh Pratap

The death of George Fernandes marks not just the death of a man who stood up for labor rights but also of an era where trade union voices impacted the social and economic policy of India.  Sadly, over the last 10 years the role trade unions had in striking a balance between corporate interests and employee interests has diminished drastically. In this article we look at trade unions, how to revitalize them for industry 4.0 and Skill India.

Why is it important for Trade Unions to play a key role in Skill India?

ILO and almost everyone agrees that trade unions have a key role in ensuring social contracts of jobs and skills. The recently released Global Commission on the Future of Work report of the ILO  goes far to say that “” Realizing the potential of technology in the future of work depends on fundamental choices about work design, including reliance on detailed “job crafting” discussions between workers and management” . Who does this? If it is not for trade unions, we will have no worker voice and the collateral damage for workers interests will be immense in rapid wave of technological disruption.  

The national policy of skill development envisaged a key role of trade unions in the governance of the Skill India programme. Sadly, we have lost our way, in a world of presentations, black suits and yellow ties.  We have not made an honest attempt to get worker viewpoints on the table. Almost everyone in a company wants narrow set of skills and almost everyone in pedagogy/human capital development work will highlight that narrow skills ensure closure of horizontal and vertical mobility for workers for e.g it is common for IT companies to train employees on software packages and applications rather than the technology. Many workers are stuck for years on a software package that no one uses apart from select companies and when that is phased out they become redundant, with no real choice in a fast moving tech world. Who highlights this to policy makers? no one will. The individual worker can’t, companies and industry association won’t.  We had noted this and in our Sharda Prasad Committee report mentioned that Trade Unions should be a part of decision making for skills development.                    We hope that Skill India gives more respect to worker’s voices and the Sector Skill Councils talk to them because what they bring to the table is what no fancy consultant can.

Why were they sidelined?

Trade Unions in part have been a victim of misunderstandings, image perceptions and choosing the wrong battles. They have not been able to express their sustained critical role in the new connected economy.  Most educated young Indians in today’s globalized world would only relate them to hartals and bandhs. Their role as a positive force for workers good needs re-demonstration to young India.  Few know, that they can be the check on corporate greed that the government can never be. They are essential because they can respond the employee welfare issues with more passion, support and impact in a way government, industry associations and non profits can. Collective bargaining is a critical component to ensure humans work and live like humans and not robots.

How can we revive them?

The trade unions need to re-discover themselves. In fact, new age technology and tools provide them a unique opportunity to do so. They need to vision out a new role. If they do not, we can as well resign ourselves to the demigods of corporate India and not be surprised why money is getting concentrated on fewer hands as the country marches ahead.  However, this is easier said than done.  There are many fundamental issues; first, we do not have a person like George Fernandes- one who truly and honestly strives and rallies for weak people’s interests. Further, trade unions have been marginalized by the corporate for a purpose, they wanted to have their highway and saw them as an obstruction in their quest for profit. Whatever be the moral arguments, they have succeeded. In doing so, while the individual companies have thrived, it may have hurt sectors and workers. Companies may be right, but only in a very narrow sense because trade unions of the future have a different role- to ensure employees and robots are differentiated and that workers have a dignified work that is fit for humans.

There is one important thing the new age unions should not get into else they will once again be relegated to the space they are currently in. They should not be distracted; they should focus on the journey (skills) and not the end (jobs). This is because we need to focus on work we can do and leave what we cannot do to people who are better than us. Good skills is what will ensure workers have an opportunity, sooner or later..

George Fernandez may have died but his zeal to stand up for the unheard and the uncared calls us to revitalize trade unions in the era of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots. These new trade Unions will be completely different from what we know of them. We may not even call them trade unions, but this space for a group of people who can collectively bargain on behalf of thousands of workers is more important now than ever. With AI waiting to sweep us we want to be sure that it is not just the companies make money out of AI but workers also have a say and share in it.

We need trade unions version 4.0 for industry 4.0. Both will be so new that it will seem like they never existed before. This is one key way to ensure “human-in-command” approach to technology changes.

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